In want of a centre

When talking about the local music scenes in Hokuriku, Asuna made a point of explaining the relationship between the major cities in economic as well as cultural terms. According to Asuna, Kanazawa is basically a poor industrial city, while Toyama is a wealthier area – as he put it, “Kanazawa is where the factories are, while Toyama is where the people who own the factories live.”

Whether it’s a feature of wealth or coincidence, Asuna says that typically Toyama has lacked a centre to its music scene, since organisers tended to be people with their own place (be that a café, gallery, bar or whatever) so there was never a hub around which people could easily gather. Nevertheless, a city of that size will always have music going on, with blues musician W.C. Karasu and singer-songwriter (and general musical all-roudner) Nishi Ohta both notable figures.

There was also an avant-garde/noise scene of sorts, centred around Taneguchi of Seed Mouth (“seed mouth” is an English transliteration of “Taneguchi”) until his death a few years ago. While Taneguchi’s friends continue to do a small annual noise festival in his honour, this underscores what a number of people were saying to me last year, which can be basically summarised as, “When I can’t do this anymore, who’s going to do it instead of me?”

One place I wanted to visit but was unable was a café called Nowhere, located appropriately somewhere out in the back of beyond. It hosts occasional shows, including a lot of overseas artists (it seems to have a particular connection with Berlin) and sidelines as a book and CD shop.

My contact in Toyama City is Naho, who as well as being a DJ specialising in world music, also does PR for Toyama’s Sukiyaki Meets the World festival. We meet at Jammin, a bar/club in one of those fascinating bleak, lightless concrete buildings that every town seems to have, full of small bars, hostess clubs and flickering fluorescent lights – their networks of sterile, lifeless corridors interspersed with doors into other worlds. Jammin is run by Mansaku, the eponymous leader of Mansaku Gypsy Orquesta – whose music is hard to pin down, but hovers nonspecifically around a sonic neighbourhood inhabited by various species of folk, reggae, ethnopunk and jazz.

The Sukiyaki Meets the World festival has been going in the southwestern Toyama city of Nanto since the early ‘90s, making it one of the longest running Japanese music festivals, with a focus on world music and its Japanese adherents. At the other end of the prefecture in Kurobe, the Hot Field festival tends to draw on lineups based around more familiar Japanese festival scene stalwarts like Ego Wrappin’, Sambomaster and Soil and “Pimp” Sessions.

The growth in small, regional music festivals around Japan over the past ten years or so feels like something that would bear more exploration, as it raises a number of interesting questions for me. For bands just on the fringes of the mainstream, it offers a circuit of paying gigs and bigger crowds, as well as a fresh environment to play in. Festivals tend to bypass the local music scene though, attracted more by the rural environments and not often engaging deeply with what’s happening culturally there.

Of course that’s not necessarily a festival’s role anyway, and the music culture of a place isn’t just about what grows there but also about what it brings to it. On a personal level, as an organiser of events featuring music with no commercial prospects at all via normal channels, festivals or festival-like events are one of the ways in which a critical mass of audience can be gathered, so in terms of how music is packaged and branded, the growth of festivals is also interesting.

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